First, full disclosure: I wrote the text for this film’s coffee table binding tape which will be released by Titan Books next week. I agreed to this after watching a rough cut of the film which I thoroughly enjoyed. Over the moon is, like any animated feature, the work of a lot of people, but everyone I interviewed was inspired by its director, animation master Glen Keane.
Glen spent 37 years at the Disney studio bringing to life some of the most indelible characters in modern times: Ariel in The little mermaid, the beast in Beauty and the Beast, the young hero in Aladdin, the title characters in Pocahontas and Tarzanand Rapunzel in Tangled, among other. A few years ago he won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Theme for Dear basketball, a collaboration with the late Kobe Bryant.
This is officially his directorial debut and, as you’d expect, he has carefully selected his team. That’s why Over the moon looks so eye-catching and its characters are so alive. The heroine is a Chinese girl named Fei-Fei (voiced by Cathy Ang) who is desolate over the loss of her mother and builds a rocket that will take her to the moon, where she hopes to meet a legendary goddess. (The goddess named Chang’e – and uttered by Hamilton‘s Phillipa Soo) – known to everyone in China and practically unknown here.) When we meet her, she is cold and bossy, more like a villain than a deity, but Fei-Fei hopes that she will serve a mission for She will find happiness again in her village on earth.
Over the moon has enjoyable songs by Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield and Helen Park and a structure in which its writer (the late Audrey Wells) suggests based on the story The Wizard of Oz. Every character we meet has a critical goal to accomplish before the narrative brings everyone a justified happy ending.
The challenge of embarking on this distant journey rests on the shoulders of his young heroine, and Fei-Fei is up to the task. We never question her feelings: she is upset with her father for inviting a “strange” woman (Sandra Oh) to her family dinner and has no use for the woman’s wild son (Robert G. Chiu). Once in the land of Lunaria on the moon, she embarks on a dangerous search that will reunite Chang’e with her long-lost love.
Several reviewers have criticized the film for being too Disney-esque. I’m not sure why this is a bad thing. After all, Walt Disney invented a permanent animated feature template that is still widely used, but I’ll admit the movie feels comfortably familiar. However, every component of this Sino-US co-production is of such quality that it seems downright silly to complain.
Full of Disney stories at its best, Keane spices up his movie with welcome details that set it apart from anything we’ve seen before. Its co-director, John Kahrs (another Disney / Pixar veteran who won an Oscar for the brilliant short film Paperman) helped bring Keane’s vision to life, which was concretized by talented production designer Celine Desrumaux. Every creature in Lunaria is lit from within, while Change’s wardrobe was provided by world-class fashion designer Guo Pei.
The introductory scenes in a quiet Chinese water village, where Fei-Fei and her parents make their typical moon cakes, show how a teenage girl feels at home … and what she is most afraid of losing. The character animation is superior and never relies on clichéd expressions. Here, too, the truth lies in the details, like with Fei-Fei’s eyelids – a distinctive Chinese look that Americans never fully master.
As I write this, I am preparing to interview Glen Keane for my weekly class at USC. We also invite students from the School of Animation to join us, as Glen is an inspiring man who learned his craft from Disney’s first generation of animators – and still uses an old-fashioned pencil. Is it too much to hope that some young people will choose him as a role model in their animation career? you can see Over the moon right now on Netflix.